“Perhaps the most devastating quality of The Irishman is the sheer intensity of its ability to observe and reflect amidst every place it goes, and do so in all-encompassing ways that only an artist as seasoned and experienced as Martin Scorsese could achieve.”
by Ken Bakely
Perhaps the most devastating quality of The Irishman is the sheer intensity of its ability to observe and reflect amidst every place it goes, and do so in all-encompassing ways that only an artist as seasoned and experienced as Martin Scorsese could achieve. The film spans over a half-century, juggling the interactions of three central characters and countless supporting and peripheral characters, but Scorsese – in tandem with Steven Zaillian’s both deeply meditative and consistently punchy script, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s smooth and precise editing – has made a work that always feels of one central, unified vision. Tracking the life of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his connections with mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamsters titan Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the movie both represents some of Scorsese’s sharpest skills as a master of the crime epic, and serves as a sweeping reflection on the passage of time. Presenting the story through a framing device, in which Frank reflects on his life as an elderly, wheelchair-bound man in a nursing home, we’re never removed from the fact that everything is being recounted as part of a greater whole. In the last act, Scorsese dives deeply into the questions of remorse for the deaths that Frank has perpetrated and destruction he has played a part in, and whether such an effect is truly desired by its initiator, or even possible at all to begin with. But it’s a testament to his consummate skill as an artist that through the complex, nonlinear plotting of this sprawling achievement, the questions are in on our mind before they’re even directly posed. From the moment Frank begins narrating his account of the past, we can’t ever fully remove ourselves from the fact that the beginning of every anecdote is part the messy network of events that leads us back.
As a result, you also notice an immediate and consuming solemnity that isn’t automatic in some of Scorsese’s other films; there’s a richly deliberate feel when considering the actions of its characters. This distinguishes it from Goodfellas, which begins with Henry Hill’s proclamation that he basically always wanted to be a gangster, descends into the chaos of the character’s mind with rapid developments throughout, and ends with Sid Vicious’s cover of “My Way” playing over the credits. I say that not to argue it’s a lesser movie, but to simply note it as a substantively different one. The Irishman carries a different mindset, wanting to further examine the weight behind everything. Here, when new characters are introduced, there will often be a title card that appears above their head, listing their date and cause of death. All of these lives run continuously with each other and interfere with each other, are shaped by each other, and sometimes are ended by each other. The violence is shaky, unsparing, and machinistic. Lives end like lightswitches getting bumped into, bodies slump to the ground in jagged angles. The point is not to see this as all preordained, but to consider the impact of all of these lives, stretched out amidst each other over meticulous timespans. This brings us, I suppose, to commentary on the movie’s runtime, which is indeed just shy of three-and-a-half hours. I won’t argue that you don’t feel those 209 minutes passing by. Contrarily, you should admire the runtime. You should be absorbed by it. Scorsese’s ability to carry us through the film’s extensive timeframe both builds our appreciation of the movie’s moment-to-moment accomplishments and makes the eventual emotional summation of the work that much more staggering.
This also gives us that much more time to admire the performances in all their complexities. While much has been made of the still-experimental CGI technology that was used to de-age the three lead actors – all in their late seventies – to play their characters at every point throughout the film’s chronology, the visual effects are only seldom unwieldy, and still allow the performers to genuinely come through. It would be enough of a gift to see De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci together onscreen in just about any context, but all three deliver performances which work to their strengths and succeed both individually and with other actors. Pacino channels his irreplaceable energy into something both deeply riveting and polished. Pesci navigates Russell’s quiet fury with a distinct and gutting reservedness, which becomes something even more corporeal and haunting as the character ages. And then there is De Niro, who covers the most time in the film, and as the titular character, communicates the movie’s messaging in the most direct of ways. Frank is depicted as a man who by reflex, and by conditioning, is without emotion. He grows more distanced from his family. As he nears the end of his life, must grapple with the permanent wedges he has lodged between him and anyone who has ever tried to genuinely care for him (on this front, praise must be given to Anna Paquin: as one of Frank’s daughters, she conveys growing, irreconcilable space in very few words). Now, after a life absorbed by evil acts, he is alone. De Niro conveys this impact, slowly arriving on his character, with a careful yet brutal affectation. There are no punches pulled in Frank’s physical and moral isolation.
That’s where we leave The Irishman. All that is left is the knowledge of what has happened. Memories coalesce, swirl, and mix several layers deep at times. Perhaps it works best here, to depict the process of remembering as merely connected by the bigger picture than as some pristine chronology that bears no resemblance to how one might actually think back on the past. After all, the film wants to pull away the fantasy and leave us in the middle of what’s there, beyond the haze of mythology. Though Rodrigo Prieto’s camera might glide with the same smooth tracking shots that have been a staple of Scorsese’s work, much like every effect or trope we have otherwise come to take for granted, the effect is more deliberately pronounced; it’s almost ghostly, more aware that everything is speeding by, and things are not really being seen. The movie builds to an accomplishment that seems like a response to the era of which it is undoubtedly thinking back to. Scorsese is not content to just acknowledge the content of his past films. He wants to further examine what they mean as time goes on – not only how they have impacted filmmaking on a tactical level, but their cultural associations, their philosophical constitutions, and their deeper human implications.